By Denis Orlov
With only a week until the new season starts, players and supporters are relishing the propect of Sunday's Belarus Cup quarter-finals as a prelude to the Premier League campaign.
The first-leg ties see 2004 league runners-up FC BATE Borisov play FC Transmash Mogilev, FC Neman Grodno take on FC Belshina Bobruisk, FC MTZ-RIPO Minsk face FC Baranovichi, and FC Darida Zhdanovichi visit FC Gomel. The second legs are scheduled for 7 April.
The first round of league matches on 16/17 April then promises two hard-fought affairs: FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk meet BATE, while champions FC Dinamo Minsk will want to begin with a win against MTZ-RIPO. These four teams are considered the most likely candidates for silverware.
Most top-flight sides had a spell abroad in pre-season. Yuri Shukanov's Dinamo toured France and Germany, beating Belgian lower-league outfit SK Deinze (2-0) and drawing with Latvian club FK Jurmala (1-1) on their travels.
BATE, Neman and Transmash chose the Ukrainian resort of Crimea for their preparations; Shakhtyor, Gomel, FC Dinamo Brest, Darida and FC Slavia Mozyr spent time in Poland; and Naftan visited Turkey.
Unlike some Premier League teams, newcomers FC Lokomotiv Minsk will rely on homegrown talent in the new term. "We want to create a competitive side from our own academy. We have a hundred youngsters training under ten coaches at the moment," said Lokomotiv coach Mikhail Pavlov.
In other news, the Football Federation of Belarus has reduced from ten to five matches the suspensions of eight players involved in a scuffle during FC Torpedo-SKA Minsk's game with FC Zvezda-VA-BGU Minsk last season, deciding that the clubs could pay fines instead.
Meanwhile, Belarus coach Anatoliy Baidachny was missing two familiar faces for the FIFA World Cup qualifying trip to Slovenia on 30 March - the Russia-based duo of Sergei Shtaniuk and Siarhei Jaskovich both serving bans. Midfielder cum defender Pavel Kirilchik, who plays in Ukraine with FC Kryvbas Kryvyi Rih, came into the squad to help compensate for their absences.
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